It's Time for Both Sides to Think About the Students

Beverly Kelley is on sabbatical as chair of the communication arts department at Cal Lutheran University. She hosts "Local Talk with Beverly Kelley" on KCLU. Address e-mail to:

Although "Titanic" grabbed a shipload more Oscars than "Norma Rae" ever did, the image of Sally Field holding up a flimsy sign hand-lettered with the word UNION loiters in our collective cinematic memory.

Just for fun, try to morph her into Robin Williams' character John Keating in "Dead Poets Society"--you'll find a disconcerting disconnect.

We continue to envision educators as guided by ethics that soar above workplace negotiations. We believe our teachers are called to serve, a responsibility to be abandoned only for the direst of reasons: Administrative abuse that undermines academic freedom or the ability of faculty to make decisions in the best interests of their students might qualify; filthy lucre doesn't.

Hat-in-hand instructors thrust into negotiator roles for the Ventura County Federation of College Teachers made yet another demeaning trek to plead for wage increases. They marked their first anniversary sans contract following a series of unsuccessful talks with the Ventura County Community College District this month. Not only was there no flickering birthday candle, there was no "let-them-eat" cake.

Having invested 10 months in discussions that deadlocked on issues including pay, benefits and faculty evaluations, state-appointed mediator Curtis Lyon threw up his hands in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the consultant attempting to teach civility to a local city council (which shall remain nameless).

For openers, while district folks officially charged with eagle-eyeing the bottom line cart tried-and-true business methods in their attache cases, union team members find their comfort zones violated when asked to move at greater-than-geologic speeds.

District trustees are hot to prune deadwood; they link money to merit and yearn to Olestra-cize the biggest piece of the budgetary pie, salaries (estimated at 90% by attorney Richard Currier), by reliance on cost-efficient part-timers.

Academics, by nature, get bogged down in research and, in an effort to represent all constituencies, are loath to assemble anything less than an elephantine negotiating team. The district board, accustomed to an entirely different decision-making process, understandably misinterprets the academy's modus operandi as merely collective foot-dragging.

Both sides engaged in sandbox skirmishes. Faculty picketed the workplaces of trustees, staged a sickout and declined duties beyond the call of contract terms.

The district sponsored full-page newspaper ads and trustee Norm Nagel underwrote radio spots, both depicting professors--whose request for a 4% raise was countered by a 1% offer--as "greedy." Faculty members, citing 6% boosts in the salaries of chancellor and deputy chancellor, were understandably off-put. Now there's speculation that the contentious Currier, the $140-per-hour legal paladin from El Cajon, is out to bust the union.

With fact finding next on the agenda, shall we anticipate further escalation? Charlene Arnold, a member of the union negotiating team, foresees no strike. She predicts the district's final offer will merely insult an already demoralized faculty instead of sending a declaration of war.

It's time to declare a demilitarized zone. Both sides might consider taking another peek at the mission statement, where students are key to common ground.

Robert D. Sherer, author of "Fear: the Corporate 'F' Word," contends that, thus far, both parties have earned a big fat "F" in two areas: 1) failing to square expectations of manager and managed and 2) losing sight of the benefits that psychic income holds over a hefty paycheck.

Futurist Bill Knoke drew some provocative parallels between the future of higher education and the blockbuster "Titanic" at the recent Youth Congress XIV. He warned that educational institutions stuck in traditional thinking would be cut adrift in the 21st century.

Read the writing on Norma Rae's placard. Both administrators and teachers must get on board or, come the millennium, our kids will miss the boat. If the negotiators continue to busy themselves arranging deck chairs, community college education is sunk.

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